Doubting Antiquity School

The Doubting Antiquity School or Yigupai (Chinese: 疑古派; pinyin: Yígǔpài; Wade–Giles: I-ku-p'ai[1][2]) refers to a group of scholars and writers in Chinese academia, starting during the New Culture Movement (mid-1910s to 1920s), who applied a critical historiographical approach to Chinese historical sources. They put forward theories doubting the authenticity of texts and narratives that, in traditional Chinese historiography, were often accepted as authentic.

Most of their criticism concerns the authenticity of pre-Qin texts and deals with questions put forward by the past dynastic writers, as well as other subjects. Hu Shih initiated the critical movement,[1] with his pupil Gu Jiegang and his friend Qian Xuantong continuing this school of thought.[3] Their writings also had influence on many western sinologists, including Bernhard Karlgren and Samuel Griffith.

In a more specific way, the Doubting Antiquity School was represented by Gushibian 古史辨 (Debates on Ancient History), the scholarly movement led by Gu Jiegang, centered on the magazine of the same name. Seven issues of the magazine, 1926-1941, contain about 350 essays.

Major critics of the Doubting Antiquity School were historians associated with the Critical Review (Xueheng 學衡), a journal founded in 1922. The historians included Liu Yizheng, Liang Qichao (梁启超), Wang Guowei, Chen Yinque, and Miao Fenglin (繆鳳林).


In the atmosphere of critical re-evaluation of traditional culture and learnings of the early 20th century, the Doubting Antiquity School found great influence. Some of their conjectures cast doubt on the authenticity of historical narratives about Chinese antiquity as presented in traditional texts that have been accepted as authentic for millennia. It is these conjectures that gained the greatest popular interest in the non-academic media, such as:

  • Yu the Great was originally an animal or deity figure used as a motif on bronzeware, and the veneration of bronzeware led to Yu being recast as a historical but super-human figure from antiquity;
  • the peaceful transition of power from Yao to Shun was concocted by philosophers of the Zhou dynasty to support their political philosophy;
  • a series of early antiquity kings were concocted in the Han dynasty and Xin dynasty to justify the rule of those dynasties on geomancy grounds; and
  • a portion of the recorded history of the Xia dynasty was concocted, borrowing the narrative from real events in the Shang dynasty, to give historical precedent to the "revival" of the Eastern Han dynasty.

Nevertheless, the Doubting Antiquity School's more important legacy was the critical approach to sources they pioneered. The central tenet of their approach was that the history of Chinese antiquity was created iteratively. Ancient texts have been repeatedly edited, reorganised, tampered with or even completely fabricated, so the historical narrative of antiquity as presented in traditional texts was different at different points of time. As time went on, the history of antiquity became longer and more complicated, characters acquired more features, including more supernatural attributes. This means that it is not always possible to identify the "authentic" version of events from antiquity, only the narrative as stated in a text at a particular time.

Some of the conjectures put forward by the Doubting Antiquity School are now disproved or supported based on archaeological findings undermining or supporting the authenticity of the historical texts that the Doubting Antiquity School posited as inauthentic. Joseph Needham wrote in 1954 that many scholars doubted that classic texts such as Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian contained accurate information about such distant history, including the thirty kings of the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–c. 1046 BC) listed by Sima. Many scholars argued that Sima could not have had access to written materials which detailed history a millennium before his time. However, the discovery of oracle bones at an excavation of the Shang capital at Anyang (Yinxu) matched 23 names of the 30 Shang kings listed by Sima. Needham writes that this remarkable archaeological find proves that Sima Qian "did have fairly reliable materials at his disposal—a fact which underlines once more the deep historical-mindedness of the Chinese."[4]

In 1993, scholar Li Xueqin made an influential speech in which he called for historians to "leave the 'Doubting Antiquity' period", which became the manifesto of the "Believing Antiquity" movement (although Li himself favoured a third historiographical approach of "Interpreting Antiquity"). Scholars of the "Believing Antiquity" viewpoint argue that archaeological discoveries of recent decades have generally substantiated Chinese traditional accounts rather than contradicted them, rendering the doubts of the Doubting Antiquity School largely obsolete. For instance, manuscripts discovered in tombs have proved the authenticity of several texts long thought to be later forgeries, including the Wenzi, the Kongzi Jiayu, the Heguanzi, parts of the Yi Zhou Shu, and many others.[5]


Yigupai or Doubting Antiquity School's opinion and claims are not universally accepted by other schools in 1920s. Major critics of the Doubting Antiquity School were historians from Historiography and Geography School (史地學派) of the National Central University in Nanjing and the academics associated with Critical Review (Xueheng 學衡), an academic journal founded in 1922. The major opposition included Chu Coching, Liu Yizheng, Liang Qichao (梁启超), Wang Guowei, Chen Yinque, and Miao Fenglin (繆鳳林).

These historians criticized that the many hypothesis of Doubting Antiquity School are radical and nationalist revisionisms influenced by the May Fourth Movement and New Culture Movement, which aims to abolish Chinese tradition. And some claim of the Doubting Antiquity School, such as Sino-Babylonianism, is based on assumption without any archaeological evidence. Chinese writer Lu Xun dismissed Doubting Antiquity School and their publication Gushibian 古史辨 (Debates on Ancient History). He argued that the real intention behind Yigupai is to aggressively demolish the Chinese imperial legacy, so much so that they would reject real historiography.[6] Many archaeological evidence discovered in 20th century, such as Yinxu and Taosi, proved some of Yigupai's claims are incorrect.[7]

Zhang Guoan of Beijing Normal University believes the existence of Doubting Antiquity School is a reflection of the political climate, rising Chinese nationalism at the time.[8]

List of early modern scholarsEdit

Prominent figuresEdit


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Wilkinson, Endymion (2000). Chinese History: A Manual. Harvard Univ Asia Center. ISBN 0-674-00249-0. Page 345, see: [1]
  2. ^ Loewe, Michael and Edward L. Shaughnessy (1999). The Cambridge History of Ancient China Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-47030-7. Page 72, see: [2]
  3. ^ De Bary, William Theodore (2001). Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century. Published by Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-11271-8. p. 364.[3]
  4. ^ Needham, Joseph. (1972). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 1, Introductory Orientations. Richmond: Kingprint Ltd., reprinted by permission of the Cambridge University Press with first publication in 1954. ISBN 0-521-05799-X. Page 88, see: here.
  5. ^ Shaughnessy, Edward L. (2006). Rewriting Early Chinese Texts. SUNY Press. pp. 257–258. ISBN 9780791482353.
  6. ^ "重提一段公案" (in Chinese).
  7. ^ Doubt and out of the Doubt (PDF) (in Chinese). The Commercial Press. 1991. ISBN 9787100071772.
  8. ^ "顾颉刚和胡适:从论战完败到"史学革命"的大逆转". The Paper. 29 April 2019.

Further readingEdit

  • Liu, Jianguo (2004). Distinguishing and Correcting the pre-Qin Forged Classics. Xi'an: Shaanxi People's Press. ISBN 7-224-05725-8.